Project-based learning doesn’t have to stay in the classroom, says middle school teacher Karla Duff, detailing how her students students created a clean-water initiative in their community.
This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Action-based learning takes project-based learning beyond the classroom, creating an impact within other classroom disciplines, schools, and community partners. Here’s a four-step introduction to the idea using the essential question: How can I conserve and protect the water in my world?
Step 1: Find the Source of the Action Project
“Making Waves,” our student-led project, focused on researching and investigating the interconnectedness of global issues, particularly water access, with a significant action component. Students investigated, designed, and implemented action plans in the local community to address the global problem of water access. As part of the unit, we integrated music, physical education, language arts, social studies, science, technology, and math classes and connected with outside partners such as conservation groups, the local Rotary club, Fairway advertising, and nonprofit foundations and organizations.
Action/issue-based projects can start in the headwaters of your curriculum’s essential questions or in the heads of your students—but the project needs to be relevant and meaningful to your learners. Picture your students being swept into a whirlpool where they need to keep their heads above water to save something or someone they care about. Imagine the impact this would have on learning in your classroom. Students don’t just learn information, they live it.
Start by activating prior knowledge with your students. Ask them about current news headlines or facts found on the web that might pique their interest. An important part of a unit my class conducted was reading and relating to the novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Parks. Nya, a young Sudanese girl, must walk three miles every day to fetch water for her family. She navigates this walk twice a day while carrying a 40-pound water jug, which leaves her little time to do anything else, including to go to school.
Students were inspired to learn more about this scenario, which included a local walk for water for their physical education class. They also researched and discussed ways they could have an impact surrounding the global water crisis. Ultimately, students decided that educating others about water would have the most impact, so they created and shared PSAs and artifacts. They’re currently working to collect funds for the organizationWater for South Sudan, the real-life counterpart to the novel we read in class.
Step 2: Filling the Tributaries and Connecting Communities
Starting with our local watershed, Otter Creek, we followed the flow of water down the Mississippi River into ocean currents around the world. Students then created an action mission statement: To educate our community about the shortage of usable water around the world.
This journey included singing historical river songs, creating models of water habitats, simulating a long hot walk for water, and graphing and interpreting data. We saw firsthand the importance of keeping our watershed healthy while visiting the National Mississippi River Museum.
Action-based learning is not project-based learning—and that’s OK. Relevance beyond the classroom can happen in both frameworks, but there’s a difference between engaging student interest in popular topics (e.g., zombies) and immersing them in activities that focus on community needs locally, regionally, and globally.
Step 3: Giving a Voice to the Mouth
Just like a river, passion has to go somewhere. Student-led, teacher-supported action-based learning allows students to use 21st-century skills. Independent thinking, researching, changing ideas midstream, and reflecting on ideas with others develop skills only found while doing active learning.
Teacher encouragement is key when students dive into a world without set guidelines. It can be overwhelming and emotional for students to see the world as a global citizen, especially for the first time. The lessons absorbed during action-based learning prepare students to be leaders, innovators, and risk-takers. Celebrating and sharing their ideas is an important step in this process.
After students conducted their research and created PSAs, we needed a group to connect all the drops and bring the class’s action ideas alive. In this scenario, students took the lead and self-selected. This was when the flash flood was created—when students were given the power to lead and innovation occurred.
Students began looking into the “what ifs” of learning.
What if we:
- Lived where our creeks, rivers, and lakes were polluted.
- Had to survive on one gallon of water a day.
- Talked to others about our water worries.
- Could help others, like Nya and Salva, who don’t have easy access to clean water.
Students then reframed those ideas, transforming each sentence. We will:
- Test our creeks, rivers, and lakes to see if they are polluted.
- Discover our personal water footprint and see how much water we use.
- Create a water-focused community event to share information learned from local experts about our community water supply.
- Present at local clubs and councils about our concerns and have our city declare a Water Awareness Week during our event.
- Use social media to connect with other groups who share our mission.
Step 4: Moving the Waters Outward
Your role as the teacher is to channel students’ energy, allowing their ideas to flow over the banks. Turning student discussion into action takes time and effort, and it means that the project is dynamic, not a static expression from year to year.
This year, three Iowa middle schools began collaborating through a shared websiteand the hashtag #watermatters. Students and staff from districts all over the state connected, created, and shared without the limits of classroom walls and bells. Since then, students and teachers have used weekends, after-school hours, and PD time for face-to-face and virtual meetings to plan and collaborate. This student voice/choice project would not have been possible using traditional learning time.
Local-Global Community: The local and global communities are an important part of sharing students’ work and moving their ideas forward. Reach out to your watershed of stakeholders, including parents, schools, businesses, legislators, and focused groups throughout your community. Global connections give students a network of experts and research to support their efforts, and participating in related global events like Stand Up for Girls and World Water Day emphasize not only the importance of the issue but give reassurance that others support students’ action mission.
Continual updates through social media, websites, and face-to-face interactions also keep the action project flowing.
Action-based learning doesn’t end at the grading period. Like other units, standards are met, essential questions answered, and data graphed—but active learners will continue making waves. Living the lesson creates a desire to learn more. Students don’t just participate in an issue project, they connect with others. Their mission statements become personal and transform their thinking.
Connections get students thinking, “Next, I will…”
- Get my friends and family to conserve water.
- Attend city council meetings.
- Share and lead in next year’s Water Walk.
Karla Duff (@teacher6th) is a middle school teacher in Oelwein, Iowa. She currently teaches social studies and reading to 6th graders. Her active classroom includes PBL units, technology exploration, student-directed learning, and a coffee mug. She teaches with an amazing interdisciplinary team that makes learning happen. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.